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Biography of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

William Shakespeare William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer of the English language, known for both his plays and sonnets. Though much about his life remains open to debate due to incomplete evidence, the following biography consolidates the most widely-accepted facts of Shakespeare's life and career.

In the mid-sixteenth century, William Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, moved to the idyllic town of Stratford-upon-Avon. There, he became a successful landowner, moneylender, glove-maker, and dealer of wool and agricultural goods. In 1557, he married Mary Arden.

During John Shakespeare's time, the British middle class was expanding in both size and wealth, allowing its members more freedoms and luxuries, as well as a stronger collective voice in local government. John took advantage of the changing times and became a member of the Stratford Council in 1557, which marked the beginning of his illustrious political career. By 1561, he was elected as one of the town's fourteen burgesses, and subsequently served as Constable, then Chamberlain, and later, Alderman. In all of these positions, the elder Shakespeare administered borough property and revenues. In 1567, he became bailiff - the highest elected office in Stratford and the equivalent of a modern-day mayor.

Town records indicate that William Shakespeare was John and Mary's third child. His birth is unregistered, but legend pins the date as April 23, 1564, possibly because it is known that he died on the same date 52 years later. In any event, William's baptism was registered with the town of Stratford on April 26, 1564. Little is known about his childhood, although it is generally assumed that he attended the local grammar school, the King's New School. The school was staffed by Oxford-educated faculty who taught the students mathematics, natural sciences, logic, Christian ethics, and classical languages and literature.

Shakespeare did not attend university, which was not unusual for the time. University education was reserved for wealthy sons of the elite, and even then, mostly just those who wanted to become clergymen. The numerous classical and literary references in Shakespeare’s plays are a testament, however, to the excellent education he received in grammar school, and speaks to his ability as an autodidact. His early plays in particular draw on the works of Seneca and Plautus. Even more impressive than Shakespeare's formal education is the wealth of general knowledge he exhibits in his work. His vocabulary exceeds that of any other English writer of his time by a wide margin.

In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway. Their first daughter, Susanna, was not baptized until six months after her birth - a fact that has given rise to speculation over the circumstances surrounding the marriage. In 1585, Anne bore twins, baptized Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. Hamnet died at the age of eleven, by which time William Shakespeare was already a successful playwright. Around 1589, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Part 1, which is considered to be his first play. Sometime between his marriage and writing this play, he moved to London, where he pursued a career as a playwright and actor.

Although many records of Shakespeare's life as a citizen of Stratford have survived, including his marriage and birth certificates, very little information exists about his life as a young playwright. Legend characterizes Shakespeare as a roguish young man who was once forced to flee London under suspect circumstances, perhaps related to his love life, but the paltry amount of written information does not necessarily confirm this facet of his personality.

In any case, young Will was not an immediate universal success. The earliest written record of Shakespeare's life in London comes from a statement by his rival playwright Robert Greene. In Groatsworth of Witte (1592), Greene calls Shakespeare an "upstart crow...[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." While this is hardly high praise, it does suggest that Shakespeare rattled London's theatrical hierarchy from the beginning of his career. In retrospect, it is possible to attribute Greene's complaint to jealousy of Shakespeare's ability, but the scarcity of evidence renders the comment ambiguous.

With Richard III, Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus under his belt, Shakespeare became a popular playwright by 1590.* The year 1593, however, marked a major leap forward in his career when he secured a prominent patron: The Earl of Southampton. In addition, Venus and Adonis was published; it one of the first of Shakespeare's known works to be printed, and it was a huge success. Next came The Rape of Lucrece. By this time, Shakespeare had also made his mark as a poet, as most scholars agree that he wrote the majority of his sonnets in the 1590s.

In 1594, Shakespeare returned to the theater and became a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men - a group of actors who changed their name to the King's Men when James I ascended the throne. By 1598, Shakespeare had been appointed the "principal comedian" for the troupe; by 1603, he was "principal tragedian." He remained associated with the organization until his death. Although acting and playwriting were not considered noble professions at the time, successful and prosperous actors were relatively well respected. Shakespeare’s success left him with a fair amount of money, which he invested in Stratford real estate. In 1597, he purchased the second largest house in Stratford - the New Place - for his parents. In 1596, Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms for his family, in effect making himself a gentleman. Consequently, his daughters made “good matches,” and married wealthy men.

The same year that he joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and several other plays. In 1600, he wrote two of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Historians and scholars consider Hamlet to be the first modern play because of its multi-faceted main character and unprecedented depiction of the human psyche.

The first decade of the seventeenth century witnessed the debut performances of several of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works, including many of his so-called history plays: Othello in 1604 or 1605; Antony and Cleopatra in 1606 or 1607; and King Lear in 1608. The last of Shakespeare's plays to be performed during his lifetime was most likely King Henry VIII in either 1612 or 1613.

William Shakespeare died in 1616. His wife Anna died in 1623, at the age of 67. Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of his church at Stratford. The lines above his tomb, allegedly written by Shakespeare himself, read:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

*The dates of composition and debut performance of almost all of Shakespeare's plays remain uncertain. The dates used in this note are widely agreed upon by scholars, but there is still significant debate around the dates of completion for many of his plays.

Study Guides on Works by William Shakespeare